Portsmouth and Southsea – such an interesting trip.

Early in the summer we spent a few days in Bournemouth, Portsmouth etc. Well, our tickets to the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard were valid for a year, so we decided to go back.  We stayed in another lovely old Victorian hotel, had an interesting walk round old Portsmouth, toured the submarine, and we still have not seen everything the place has to offer…. Battleaxe would totally recommend a (long) visit to Portsmouth – there is just so much to see and do.

HMS Warrior

    First, to the Dockyard and  HMS Warrior. People say that this ship is better than the Victory, and I would agree.


      Launched in 1860, she was the pride of the British navy, the first of the armoured ‘ironclads’, and the largest, fastest and most powerful warship in the world. She patrolled the seas in a state of readiness for 22 years, carrying 700 men, bristling with massive guns, but never fired a shot in anger. She had a fearsome reputation as the ultimate deterrent, the eighteenth century version of Trident.
      Charles Dickens described her as:
     ‘A black vicious ugly customer as ever I saw, whale-like in size, and with as terrible a row of incisor teeth as ever closed on
a French frigate’

     Built for both steam and sail, her statistics are staggering. The ship was protected by iron plating 4.5 inches thick, backed by eighteen inches of teak, giving her an overall weight of well over 9000 tons. Philosopher and I contemplated the huge ship floating quietly in the water, and marvelled that water alone could hold the thing up…. Eeeerr – OK. Guess how heavy the world’s largest cruise ship, the ‘Harmony of the Seas’ is…. wait for it…..227,000 tons. Now, how does that float?
     The massive propeller had to be raised when the Warrior was under sail – this took the muscle power of 400 men. Dealing with the anchors was nearly as bad. The ship had four, each weighing 5.6 tons. Raising each anchor needed 100 men on a capstan, and could take 4 to 5 hours. The ship was clearly not into quick getaways, but she could travel at over 17 knots using both sail and steam.  Her sails covered an overall area of 37,546 square feet – imagine the effort need to hoist that lot.
     Working conditions for the men were better than in the days of the Victory. At least they could stand up below decks, even if they still slept in hammocks slung between the guns. The worst time was had by the stokers, who worked below the water line in hot, airless conditions, shovelling coal into the forty furnaces which powered the huge engines.

More room below decks – but still 18 men would live round each gun

They even had washing machines

Part of the engine

     Next, we went to the new Mary Rose exhibition. OK, she’s very old, launched in 1510, the pride and joy of Henry VIII and a pretty rare thing, but let’s be honest, what remains of the old ship (less than half) is pretty much a pile of old wood. However, they have made the best of it with virtual reality projections of the crew doing their tasks, and excellent supporting exhibition areas.There   are even reconstructions of some of the faces of the crew from their skeletal remains. Most must have had dreadful toothache – decay and abscesses were the norm.
     I particularly liked the skeleton of the ship’s dog.

The Mary Rose

The ship’s dog.

     Our hotel, the Queen’s Hotel in Southsea, is just along the seafront from the Royal Beach where we stayed last time.  The Queen’s is another faded grandeur architectural gem, all marble, high ceilings, paster mouldings, huge chandeliers, massive staircases etc. The glass dome in the front foyer is particularly striking.

Queen’s Hotel Southsea

Glass dome in the hotel foyer

     We had a sea view room, this time with a balcony, and a great view of the ships going in and out of Portsmouth harbour.  At this point, the ships are really close to the shore, and look enormous.  Battleaxe would totally recommend this hotel for lovers of Victorian grandeur, but they do have a lot of events – tribute bands etc., so would avoid those – very noisy I expect.

View from our balcony

Oops – that ship is a bit close

     We walked out to look at the Portsmouth Naval War Memorial, just across the grass. It is impressive and poignant, listing 25,000 dead sailors from the two world wars who have no known grave. I read that there are identical memorials in Chatham and Plymouth.

The Portsmouth Naval War Memorial

      We also found ourselves right by the hovercraft embarkation point, and watched them roaring back and forth to the Isle of Wight. Have only been on a hovercraft once – found it very claustrophobic.

Arrival of the hovercraft

       Next morning we walked from the hotel along the sea wall and fortifications of Old Portsmouth, to the area known as Spice Island at the tip. Very interesting and picturesque.

Looks a bit threatening….

View from the Round Tower

The Square Tower

Spice Island

     We saw the Saluting Platform, where Royalty, Admirals etc. stand for reviews of the fleet. Battleaxe stood there and imagined what fun it would be. Huzzah! Huzzah! The crews lined up along the decks in their immaculate uniforms, men up the masts, ships hooting, flags flying, bands playing, guns booming.
     I saluted, but in vain. All that passed was an Isle of Wight ferry, with just a couple of old geezers on deck, who gawped at me as if I was mad.

Battleaxe reviews the fleet

And the salute is returned – no, this is from the internet – Trafalgar day at Portsmouth 2005

And the boys waved from the mast spars – no, internet again.

      At Spice Island we found a multi-story boat park, and the Portsmouth fishing fleet. We didn’t go up the Spinnaker tower – have to leave that for another time!

Multi-story boat park

The fishing fleet
We didn’t go up the Spinnaker Tower

       We walked back via Portsmouth Cathedral – an architectural mish mash, but interesting. However, we had extreme sight-seeing fatigue by this time.

        Later, we drove to Gosport, searching for the addresses of some of Philosopher’s relatives who lived there when he was little. We didn’t have much success, but we ended up right by the Submarine Museum. Our seemingly limitless Dockyard tickets entitled us to go in, so we decided to call into the cafe for lunch. Curses, cafe was closed, so we ended up going round the resident WW2 era submarine, the HMS Alliance.

HMS Alliance

     Like Warrior, the submarine never actually saw action – she was commissioned just as the war ended. She has been restored to show daily life aboard, and I am really glad we didn’t miss it. There was proper lighting,  sound effects, including a depth charge attack, and a burst of the deafening sound of the engines. Apparently many ex-submariners have hearing problems. Not surprising. It was all brilliant.

Meal time
Machiney stuff….

        I was transfixed by the terrifying escape hatch routine. Reaching the surface from a depth of 100 feet takes around two minutes, during which time you have to continuously blow out the air in your lungs to avoid getting the bends. Our guide, an ex submariner, had actually done this – until 2009 they had a 100 foot deep training tank in a tower at Gosport which all submariners had to practice in. I would have drowned on the spot. Seems to me, too, that it is a bit like doing escape drills on a plane – the chances of surviving are very low.
        If you go to the Dockyard, don’t miss the Submarine Museum. You can get there from the main site on a water bus.
        Finally – a coincidence. Look what was setting up opposite the hotel as we left…. Hope the performing cats are doing OK!

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